Heidi Campbell - "Networked Theology"
4:45AM Jul 7, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today, it's our delight to be speaking with Dr. Heidi Campbell. Dr. Campbell is Professor of Communication at Texas a&m University and also the author of the text that we'll be discussing today, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture, available from Baker academic. Dr. Campbell, thank you so much for being with us.
It's my pleasure. Thank you,
Dr. Campbell, when you wrote your first book on theology and technology in 2005, the title exploring religious community online, there must have been very few, indeed, who recognize this as a serious area of research and needing further exploration. Well, a decade and a little change has taken us a long way into this development of digital culture. How did you find your way to begin to research religion and new media?
So my first book exploring really Community online came out of my PhD research which are began in 1996 1997. So that was the era when the internet was first become a public kind of commodity and open to people. And you as a new PhD student, I was spending a lot of time exploring the internet. And then this opportunity to look at the idea of kind of how people were forming community online, emerged, and became one of my thesis is or papers in my master's thesis, and then opened up this whole realm, which I explored in my PhD research. And so those are in those early days, I was really interested in the people were using things like the internet and these early forms of chat rooms, bulletin boards and email to build conversations which they were then calling communities and even churches. And so I wanted to see kind of how they were translating that notion of you know, the body of Christ into those digital spaces, and how those experiences communicating through this media platform. We're changing their definition of what it means to be part of a faith community in a church. That started, you know, almost three decades of research that I've done now on kind of how we're we're just communities use the internet, as well as how the internet becomes a microcosm to explore how people understand spirituality in the 21st century.
This is incredible.
I've only been aware of online churches or virtual reality churches as a very recently CNN has picked up some stories on pastor DJ Soto, a virtual reality pastor as his Wired Magazine, but you've been following this much longer. When did you first become aware of online churches? And did these communities seriously consider themselves churches? Or was it some sort of slang name to refer to their communities? How serious were these early churches?
Well, in the mid to late 1990s, there was several different experiments that emerged online. The first church of cyberspace came about around 1998. And it was started by Presbyterians in the kind of Northeast and they kind of started this group started to see you know, how could this new thing Technology create a new way for kind of gathering people as well as communication or maybe rethink what it means to do churches in a digital environment. And so some of the first churches were websites that would have kind of a chat room kind of services, where would kind of be this kind of response kind of thing, and even attempts at people singing and doing liturgy through that. Some of them were more static, you know, there was, you know, a lot of experiments that were kind of more playful, like the first church of the blind Chihuahua, that came about around 1999, as well. And it was a space it was kind of the website was kind of name to look like, you know, here's the name. And this would be a place where you could talk to people online, here's the scriptorium, whether it be resources, so people were trying to use it even then not as interactive kind of platforms. And then we see in the last year, two decades, you know, when Second Life came around, virtual environments became a place and experimentation. We've seen people kind of try to do church through kind of Facebook options, and then now you know, the kind of latest training with multi site churches really using technological platforms as a way to kind of create a church, in multiple locations network together through digital media and through embodied experiences. So we've seen kind of lots of transmutation, but really at the heart of it is kind of saying, what really is the essence of the church? You know, what kind of aspects Can you replicate or translate online? And what aspects of maybe kind of body practice you know will be limited if we try to mediate them? I'm absolutely
fascinated with this first church of cyberspace, which I'd never heard of. Thank you for introducing me to that. You say it was a Presbyterian church that was behind it. Did this Presbyterian Church consider this web this first church of cyberspace? Was that their church website or did they consider it to be another church that they had planted?
Well, basically, it was started by people in the Presbyterian Church. And yeah, it was the idea was to kind of let us create this kind of experiment so they had regular services in a real time, fashion. a weekly basis where someone would you know, kind of through the chat room functions allowed people to interact with it. But then also to kind of look through other streaming tech, early streaming technology, were able to listen to a sermon, listen to kind of, you know, hymns being kind of played. And so from your individual spaces interact, and then over time experiment ran for about 10 years, and they tried different kinds of platforms in different kinds of ways. But they really did design it to be a church like experience. Not all the people involved in WordPress material, you know, I in those early days, because I was doing my PhD work, you know, attended a couple of the services, just to kind of see what it was like, but it was, you know, gonna just think, rethink what the nature of kind of church and ecclesiology is in a digital world.
We're discussing network theology, negotiating faith in digital culture with the author Dr. Heidi Campbell, thank you again for being with us. Dr. Campbell. You describe the second chapter of your book as a crash course in new media would you be willing to Help out our viewers and tell us what exactly do you mean by new media.
So I'm a professor of communications specifically in media studies. And new media is kind of category that we used to donate between the early electronic mass media and these new forms of digital technologies. So the era of mass media was, you know, kind of categorized by beginning with newspapers, radio, television. And so these were media that were kind of produced centrally. And then were brought in a broadcast format set out, they were kind of constructed and put together very linear, you know, really took a lot of expensive equipment, a high level expertise to produce. But with the digital transformation and digital transition, as all these other older forms of media were put into digital formats, we saw that instead of professionals being able to produce you know, Radio Television produce. Now, you know, with the use of smartphone, you can produce the same quality that you had maybe 2030 years ago, on the radio or television, so it's moved from kind of only perfect producing it to non professionals, instead of the database structure of digital technology means that media is produced in a nonlinear format, which allows you to kind of manipulate and change the message as well as remix it very easily. And we've gone from also from kind of media being just okay, just producing audio or video, or images that the media can produce in a multimedia way. So we have a much more dynamic kind of form of media. And so it's a way that we can talk about not just the different generations of technology, but also what are these key characteristics and defining features that kind of change the nature of technology and who can produce media in the digital age?
Dr. Campbell? Does the rise of new media challenge the importance or centrality of scripture in the Christian tradition? Can the Reformation the Reformation theological position of sola scriptura be translated into this world of new media that we now inhabit
well digital culture really does change kind of understand we're interacting not just with information in text, but just with individuals. So I talked about in my research, the idea that the internet is based on this multi site reality, it's a reality that's, you know, both related to what's happening in the online context, and the offline context. And, you know, a perfect example, this is kind of hyperlinks, you know, so you go to a website, and you're reading a text, and oh, there's a link. And so you can basically leave that original text and go to a new place and explore something different. And so the internet in many ways, it kind of encourages you to kind of go be collecting information to go on this kind of spiritual journey, you know, use a one text as a starting point, but it's not the ending point. Another thing that digital texts do is that, you know, unlike you know, text being kind of maybe taught by you know, the pastor or the priest, and interpreted by certain theologians, internet encourages people to collaborate, share their ideas. Isn't opinions it's a very kind of considered to collaborative, interactive kind of space. And so you have two challenges that kind of do text faced is one is, you know, who is the author? Who has the ability to kind of interpret the text? And then how do we actually kind of use the text and so it basically encourages kind of fluid engagement encourages very personalized kind of response to the text. And so, these are kind of challenges that, you know, people face like when you put a Sacred Scripture online, you know, it's, it's that idea that it just becomes the starting point, but not the ending point of a conversation, which can be great for that biblical study and reflection, but I'm kind of interpretive patterns and, you know, theological discourse could be really challenged by this, as well as the idea. You know, we see that kind of people that are rise of theologians online people that blog about theology that may not have the, you know, the training in Greek, or Hebrew, or they're just kind of skilled hobbyist or people that have a passion for the game. They can be putting out ideas that are well communicated and engaging, but then not actually correct, historically, or in their kind of interpreter pattern. And so we see, you know, this real challenge to solar krypter about how you know, people approach it. And you know, this just didn't happen because of digital media, you know, the postmodern rise of postmodern in the depths of the meta narrative that we have heard coming out of philosophy and literature studies since the 1960s kind of really challenged the idea that there's one author or there's a one set of kind of interpreters or guides for a certain text, but the internet basically just encourages, especially in the everyday person to live without this reality. And so it can be kind of a place of contestation, especially for traditional practices, and interpretive patterns and new forms that are encouraged in digital media.
I've heard you intimate couple of times that this new media gives us an opportunity to rethink our queasy ology how deeply Do you anticipate that this new media may church change our church structures?
Well, I think one opportunity that digitally allows is that, you know, again, a lot of church services and kind of environments can be very hierarchical, very kind of top down where the internet says you know, if you're gathers a church First of all, if you don't speak, you're not present. So it encourages interactivity encourages people to kind of contribute to conversations. And it also is kind of based on the idea of everyone should have an equal voice, and which so you know, if you have a church based on conversation, a church based on ideas, sharing at church based on people hollow equals space, rather than kind of one person teaching and other people responding, it creates new opportunities for people to kind of your message we speak about their face, identify with their face, and make a much more kind of dialogic community. You know, which many sailors have talked about. But then again, that also does challenge traditional structures of what it means to be part of a church if your church is based on conversation rather than the event of service that was what most offline community based on that's a very different way of looking at it you know, talking out your face together and using it and like having some kind of guided experience versus an event that you attend and then you respond to so I mean, I think online I'll queasy ology has the opportunity to kind of experience and maybe actually cultivate different patterns or church that may be more in line with some of the early forms of church which were very communal, conversational, and about living faith rather than just acting it out in an event.
One of the themes that you described throughout your book really is the way that this experience with technology is changing our vision of ourselves what the self means. What does the internet and new media how does that reshape our conception of ourselves?
Well, for one way does this especially with how we kind of Understand and present our religious identity. I talk about in the book and in my work the concept of storied identity. So that, you know, it used to be that we thought of religious identity is something you take on like putting on on a coat, you know, you go to catechism, you go to Sunday school, you go to a new membership class, they tell you, these are the values, these are practices, and then you just go out and act those out. But digital culture provides a lot of resources for you to kind of think about, okay, what does it mean to live out those practices, both in conversation, both in practices, and how I even present myself on my Facebook profile images I use, the way I perform in a certain kind of environment. And so digital culture allows people to kind of can create this story, their religious story, self, and it's very much performance oriented. And that's not to say we didn't perform our religious identities already, you know, when we went to church, you know, we knew that there are certain kind of rituals to to emulate and kind of take part in in the worship services. But this is more not just about kind of performing in the event, but performing In the every day, and so it kind of shifts the, the face from just a one on one time or one event experience to how do I integrate that face and perform that face in a 24 seven way and I have lots of good information as well as opportunities to kind of act that out versus just that one, you know, two hour event on a Sunday afternoon. And so then I think for many people that the internet can be a very freeing experience and a place to also experiment to say okay, how how could I be like Heidi the Theologian, or Heidi, the spiritual director or Heidi The, the the postmodern pilgrim? And how can I act out in my journey in my beliefs in these spaces through again, whatever kind of tagline I put on my Twitter profile or the image I put on my Facebook profile?
Dr. Campbell, you are a professor of Communications Studies and your writing on the way that religion is changed by by the the advent of new media. What do you say to our audience churchgoer who says, look, Moore's law tells me that computing power is doubling about every two years or so. And there seems to be no end in sight for the amount of new changes that we'll be confronted with. I'm just done with it all. I'm not going to be a systematic thinker about the way that technology is changing my religious leg life because it's only going to get more and more driven by technology and change filled, I'm simply going to retreat into ancient unchanging forms of religious expression. What do you say to those folks?
Well, one thing I would say is that even if you choose to opt out of kind of using, say, social media or a smartphone, you're still impacted by the culture, that there's certain kind of traits and certain kinds of behaviors that digital culture encourages. You know, again, this experimentation this flat may have hierarchy, this being able to present your voice in a new space also faces you with information overload. The, the potential that you can, instead of seeing the person on the other side of the screen as you know, a fellow human being to objectify them, and use just the digital you for your personal needs. So I would say first thing is that you know, people in digital culture whether or not you use the technologies you're being shaped by because people's mentality of others of how society works of how we build relationships. So I think some kind of level and awareness is required by everyone as well, especially the church to know this is a little people that you run into on the street or may come into your front door or come to your website are going to be seeing the world seeing religion and having those expectations. And those expectations also come into the you know, how people see church and digital culture really encourages a very personalized view of the world. You know, you kind of are the center of your little network inner universe, you decide, okay, I connect my friends and my workmates to these technologies. And you have this really diverse and diffused social network and the church becomes just one part of that network. It's not the central Part of most people's kind of experience, even if they're really committed church members, so being kind of aware of that saying, Okay, how do we address those values of recognizing this is where people are coming from. But maybe we need to do some theological education or just culturing of them saying like, okay, the culture is teaching you these values. These are the values that you can embrace, and we can bring into the church. And these are some of the things that actually might kind of be detrimental to your face, to the community, and even to the person that God's called you to be. So I think it's kind of both not just integrating the technology into the church and having, you know, social media opportunities for people, but also just seeing how the cultural values in positive and in problematic ways are going to be changing the culture of society and the people that you are wanting to reach into, and especially the future generations, and being able to respond to that and have a conversation.
For those who are ready to engage this new media and get their hands dirty, so to speak. What are the areas of Christian thought or practice that are most right to be re articulated in this new environment.
We've already talked about ecclesiology. And I think kind of thinking about the nature of what it means to be the church, you know, one of the big critiques, is that, okay, you know, but, you know, online church or churches that use digital technology, they're, they're mediating their experience. And so this is problematic. But, you know, church and face in the world have always been mediated, you know, you know, the spoken word, if you look at that is a form of mediation. So, you know, preaching, you know, the Bible are all ways of kind of God's word, God's word and God's spirit being communicated to us in contemporary society. So it's sort of getting hung up on the idea of a body meant versus, you know, this embodiment there's really, I think, it's looking at kind of what you know, what, again, what is the essence of church? What does it mean to be in community and relationship? What you know, what does it mean to be accountable to one another, and how can we actually leverage or use these technologies maybe to build the church, I think a lot of work can be done with religious education and spiritual development of using technologies to kind of help and teach people also to kind of again, instead of having the church organized around an event or one day a week experience, how can we give people resources that are already out there or create them to help them live their spiritual lives 24 seven, and with on sensitivity, Miss accountability and with consistency, in line with the face and the traditions that God is calling them to. And then of course, there's, you know, huge areas of kind of just what it means to be human in the digital age. There's conversations that are emerging about between theology and post humanism about, you know, where we might be going if we embrace technologies in our human kind of evolution and development and what kind of theological challenges so every new technology from augmented reality, virtual reality, wearable computing, it's all adding new challenges and what it means to be To what extent when we embrace these things, does it change who we are as human And who we are in the image of God, especially when our ability to cross over into those categories which were once reserved for God being all seeing all knowing, in that context. So I think there's a lot of interesting conversations to be had both very practical levels and very theological deep levels.
Yes, massive areas of research opening up to us. Thank you so much for those comments. Dr. Campbell. Dr. Campbell, would you be willing to speak to religious rituals Christian religious rituals that you have seen performed really well in a digital context and and what was it that made those transfer those rituals transformed transfer well, to the digital context?
What are some rituals such as kind of Bible study prayer, kind of can be really easily translated, you know, again, creating opportunities like through apps, kind of take what you hear in a church service or on a Sunday school class and then in the lessons And interactions throughout the week, you know, using digital media to kind of create it or across, you know, one church context into different whole church network. So it hasn't really tried 24 cents, seven cents of accountability, obviously, you know, kind of all the apps that are out there for bible study. So there's a lot of kind of really practical resources and rituals that can be easily translated into digital context. Also, you know, just there's a lot of interesting experimentation happening with in multi site churches, so using technology as a way to kind of think about Okay, how do we maybe kind of in a missional kind of perspective on kind of connect churches and create maybe cook more cohesive experiences and kind of also kind of facilitate church in places that either a they don't have access to a pastor, or, you know, you could, like, you know, in certain countries where it would be difficult. You can provide church resources to people through the internet, that wouldn't be possible and then Your online digital missions is becoming a huge area, especially for people that you know, will minister in parts of the world where, you know, Christianity is not well accepted, you know, the Muslim world. And there's some really interesting movements, especially by Muslim converts, creating kind of websites, religious apps, social media platforms, online, interactive digital tracks, that are aimed at kind of, you know, people and so that they can be maybe a based in one country, but are reaching their home country for Christ through these digital platforms that opportunity. So I think a lot of kind of very, some rituals are really easy to translate, though they do think requires thinking about the impact of these technologies have I seen one of the areas is more challenges, obviously, some kind of Christian rituals are very based on kind of theology like baptism, the Eucharist, and for some religious denominations that doing that in an immediate way is is it effective Native and not problematic, and for others, it's always going to be problematic. What I really find is that you know, how you see sociology of a particular kind of Christian ritual or practice that really determines the extent to which you're willing to translate it and transform it in the digital environment. And to what extent maybe non face to face contact would be seen as problematic or acceptable.
Hmm. Dr. Campbell, this is super interesting. Some Christian practices, ritualistic practices, like prayer and Bible study, transfer really well to the online environment, online prayer rocks, I love praying with people from different parts of the world. And it's a very natural experience and something that I feel is very spiritually beneficial online Bible study. I do it almost every day with logoff and many will know that Bible software practice package. So some of those things seem to be like low hanging fruit. Other questions like baptism, which you mentioned, are they categorically different? And if so, why? The question of baptism, the youth Chris, will that ever translate to an online environment, say 100 years from now, what's your view?
wasn't you know, there have been several different denominations come out, especially on the issues of kind of the Eucharist and baptism to say, no, this is not acceptable. The Methodist Church has won the Catholic Church is another. And that is really because of kind of theological reasons, you know, in the Catholic tradition and other kind of Anglo Catholics, you know, the doctrine of transubstantiation is that you know, that there has to be an ordained mediator there, the priest to kind of basically help transfer the kind of essence of Christ into those elements, and then into the experience of people kind of imbibing of them. So similar with kind of things such as baptism, the idea that there's that, that, you know, not that the Holy Spirit can come into the digital world or digital technology, but there's a sense of kind of that human kind of contact is kind of important for the theological understanding of those events. And so basically, for those churches, religious traditions that have really Kind of strong kind of theological understanding about not just how ritual is done but kind of what what needs to happen and you know how the Holy Spirit works, that really kind of experiments to what extent those things can be done online or offline. You know, I've I've heard of plenty examples of an evangelical context, people doing plenty of pressure wasn't said, Okay, go get your bread go your wine, we will hold it up to the screen. And this didn't happen. The internet has happened in the age of electronic television, even in the radio, you know, people kind of saying, Okay, let's have that immediate experience, but in certain religious traditions, that that idea that the Holy Spirit could move through immediate form isn't as a problem and isn't as problematic theologically as it isn't other. So again, I think a lot of times, it's the theological tradition and understanding that either opens doors or kind of puts boundaries on to what extent different rituals can be mediated, whether it's through the computer screen, the television screen, or even you know, mediated through other spaces.
Dr. Campbell, I'm going to ask you to brainstorm with me and compose an agenda for theological questions opening up in this new environment. But first, if I can ask you, you, you call this new movement, new media, as we investigate it and explore theological questions in this world of new media. How new is new media? So in your own perspective, as you map out philosophical and theological questions in this new in the new period are we looking at with new with the advent of new media? Are we looking at a fundamentally new type of communication and possibilities? Or is our best and most trusted way to navigate these questions look back at the history of writing look back at the history of radio and television and And should we see new media as a as a small bump on this much longer continuum of human trait telecommunication.
Well, I'm making In my book when religion meets new media that to understand kind of how religious groups respond to technology, or could create a theology of new media that they need to understand for things. So one is that we need to be aware of kind of our own religious tradition, both theologically and historically. And so yeah, going back to kind of looking at the early debates, will through the Protestant and Catholic Church of how different groups responded to the printing press. You know, one thing people don't know is that the Catholic Church actually readily embraced the printing press. When it first emerged, they thought it'd be a great way to kind of create standardization in religious education, and especially training resources for the church and priests. It wasn't until they BNC Oh, there's also this technology can also be used for other purposes that challenge the church, that they kind of became more critical. And so kind of understanding kind of how people were approached kind of those older technologies becomes kind of this template that kind of dictates how people deal with new technologies. You easily if the technology is in line, and it can be enhanced the values and beliefs, and theology of the community, they're going to readily embrace it, or at least at least aspects of it. Most religious groups don't reject all technology, they just reject things that produce theologies or social practices that are antithetical or against the beliefs and culture of the community. And so I think going back to the kind of how people approach new media or what you know, we'd call digital network technologies is, you know, in the same way that the groups that kind of see like, yeah, these affordances like, it allows us to do evangelism and allows us to do training and allows us to kind of open up maybe communications that's positive Oh, but when encourages maybe kind of anti social values and encourages people to be more individualistic rather than communal. That's when we kind of set up and say, okay, to what extent can we embrace this technology? To what extent do we need to maybe resist certain either aspects are uses of it? And to what extent maybe do we need to kind of innovate how we use it. So it's more in line with our values. And I think this is the template that's been happening unconsciously within the church or religious communities for generations and centuries. And you know, I think just recognizing this helps religious groups kind of know, how do we deal with this current generation and then the new generations of you know, augmented reality virtual reality that and smart technologies that we'll be encountering in the next decade.
Dr. Campbell, what are the what are the questions, the Christian theological questions that you see as most urgently needing answers as we move forward?
Well, I think you know, again, one, one question is what does it mean to be human in a digital age? Now, I mentioned this idea of the post human but as we got more and more technologies that are not just outside us, but are things that we were in our clothing, that kind of extend our human abilities and give us kind of those, those what we call godlike abilities. Those things kind of raised a question about To what extent you know, do we need to put kind of limits, or at least kind of have an active ethical conversation to get people to reflect, you know, we're not going to stop the advance of new technologies, but we can be active and in the center of recently helping people evaluate and think about how can we use them or culture them in ways that kind of enhance humanity and a communal attitude rather than individualistic attitude? And I think churches really need to be there. I think the other big question is, what does it mean to be the church in and a religious Christian community? And you know, the 21st century? I mean, we there's a lot of things we can do in churches with these technologies. But is it changing our ecclesiology? is it changing what it means to be church in problematic ways? Is it encouraging certain kind of values and attributes that may be actually against the tradition or in conflict with the tradition we're in? You know, wasn't easy to say, Oh, well, technology is, you know, neutral. We're just going to grab it and let it integrate it. But it also brings with it values. And, you know, that's I think that's this is probably like the saying, oh, technology is God is all powerful, and it's going to seduce us. So we need to reject it. We live in a world where technology is here. And so we need to have a conversation and engage it. But we need to have theological reflection on what that's changing about how we see the church, and how we see community at the very center of those integrations.
Dr. Campbell, if I can close the interview with a question that we've been asking all of our interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do as individual Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed in john 17?
Well, I think in the contemporary society, you know, especially with a lot of mainstream denominations, you know, kind of diminishing in attendance. You know, there's a tendency for people wanting to fight for their turf and trying to we need to keep our identity strong. We need to kind of be focused on sustaining what we have. And you know, kind of kind of having brain Island mentality. I think, you know, in the 21st century, we need to kind of see the church not just as institutions with church as the mystical communion, the church have, as you know, a sacramental commune, this connected beyond territories and denominations and structures and say, How can we create resources? How can we create networks, that kind of bridge and branch and basically kind of fade into the global Body of Christ and not just global denominations? So it's like looking at you, you're saying, like, you know, what are we willing to do that maybe was not going to benefit our community directly, but he's going to build the bigger community. And that takes a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of challenge. But maybe in certain contexts, you know, it's learning some things diminish so that other things can grow and come forth.
It's been her honor today to be speaking with Dr. Heidi Campbell, Professor of Communication at Texas a&m University and also author of the text that we've been discussing today networks, theology, negotiating faith in digital culture available from Baker academic. Dr. Campbell, thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you